For the first time in my life, I’m living with a boy.
Well, I suppose it might be more appropriate to refer to him as a man, since he’s thirty-five years old. Anything over eighteen is technically a man, and definitely when you’re over thirty, there’s little debate. Other man-like qualities Tyler Hendricks possesses include: facial hair that can be grown out to beard length if required; a deep, masculine voice; a hairy chest; and man-sized genitalia. He is definitely an adult male. No question about that.
Which makes sense, since I am an adult woman. We are two adults in a totally normal, healthy adult relationship.
For the most part.
Tyler is cooking dinner when I come into our apartment. Or he was, before he dashed across the foyer to open the door for me while my key was still in the lock. This is his new thing, which is some combination of sweet and irritating. Granted, it does take me longer than most people to unlock a door.
“I told you, Maddie,” he says as he holds the open door to allow me to wheel inside. “Just text me when you’re in the elevator and I’ll have the door open for you.”
“And I told you,” I say patiently, “that I’ve been unlocking doors for myself for my entire life. I can handle it. Honestly.”
“But why should you have to?”
Like I said—sweet and irritating. But I’m not going to start a fight. Not tonight. He means well. He’s never dated a woman in a wheelchair before and definitely never lived with one. He’ll learn.
As I wheel into the apartment, a delicious aroma enters my nostrils. Tyler is one hell of a cook. It would be easy enough to grab some takeout from downstairs or else pop a TV dinner in the microwave like I used to do pre-Tyler, but he loves to cook. So I’m not going to stop him. Well, if he were bad at it, I would. But fortunately, he’s not.
“What are you making?” I ask.
Last week, Tyler and I went to a teppenyaki restaurant. He’d never been to one before, and he got such a kick out of it when they tossed a piece of zucchini into his mouth across the table. Even though he’s technically a man, there’s something very youthful about Tyler sometimes. Maybe that’s what I like about him.
“So are you going to cook the food in front of me?” I ask.
“No. How could I?”
This is a fair point. Much to my aggravation, my wheelchair barely fits in the kitchen of our shared apartment. I can make it inside just enough to reach the fridge, but it’s a C-shaped kitchen and I can’t get to the stove, or really, half the kitchen. Our microwave is outside the kitchen, so for the most part, it’s fine. My old apartment had plenty of room in the kitchen for me to spin 360-degrees, but Tyler was the one with the two-bedroom apartment and also with nine months left on his lease. So we’re here. For now.
“So what makes it teppenyaki then?” I ask.
“Well, it’s fried rice and vegetables with shrimp in teriyaki sauce.”
“That doesn’t make it teppenyaki. That just makes it Japanese food.”
Tyler lets out an angry huff. “What are you—the hibachi police?”
I laugh. “Okay, fine. I can’t wait to taste your teppenyaki.”
He winks at me. “Oh, I’ll give you a taste of my teppenyaki all right.”
Whatever that means. I think he’s alluding to his ejaculate.
My phone starts buzzing so I leave Tyler to his hibachi cooking. (Although seriously, that’s not teppenyaki. I think teppenyaki actually refers to the griddle it’s cooked on, but no matter what, fried rice cooked in a pan on our stove is not teppenyaki.) When I fish my phone out of my purse, I see Liam Murphy’s name on the screen.
I smile, like I always do when my best friend calls me. And even though I hate myself a little bit for doing it, I go to the living room to talk, to a place where Tyler won’t hear.
“Hey, Maddie.” Liam’s voice comes through the phone, several notches lower and more serious than it usually is. Liam is rarely serious, so this worries me something is wrong. “What are you up to?”
“Tyler’s making dinner.”
“Tyler,” he repeats. I wish he wouldn’t say my boyfriend’s name like that. Like it’s something distasteful to him.
Liam and Tyler don’t like each other. No, that’s an understatement. They hate each other. They don’t even pretend for my sake. They’re willing to be in the same room together and even form a foursome for dinner with whatever girl Liam is dating, but it’s clear they’re never going to be “bros” or BFFs” or whatever the current lingo is.
“Listen,” he says in that low voice, “I need to talk to you. I need… your advice. Do you think you could get away tonight?”
“I really can’t. Tyler’s working hard on making dinner.”
And it smells great, even though it’s not teppenyaki. If I tell my boyfriend I’m blowing off dinner with him to see Liam, it won’t be good. At all.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur into the phone. “I really can’t now.”
“Shit…” he breathes.
“How about tomorrow?”
He sighs. “Okay, fine. Tomorrow at six. You know where.”
I do know where.
After we hang up, I wheel out to the kitchen, where Tyler is finishing up with the teppenyaki (but not really). He puts the rice and vegetables on two plates, then follows it with the giant shrimp. He looks down at the plates for a moment, then picks up a knife and starts cutting up the shrimp on the plate that’s presumably mine. He’s not just cutting the tail off either—he’s mincing it into tiny pieces.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
He grins at me. “Almost done.”
“I don’t need you to cut up my shrimp for me.”
“It’s no problem.”
I grit my teeth, but don’t point out that I’ve been living with cerebral palsy for thirty-two years and am perfectly capable of eating shrimp without having it cut up for me like a toddler. We’ve only been living together two months. It’s normal for there to be growing pains. Besides, I don’t want to piss him off when I’ve got to tell him I’m seeing Liam tomorrow.
Tyler brings the food out to the dining table, a proud smile on his face. He loves recreating food we’ve had in restaurants. And he’s actually very good at it. I’m lucky. Tyler is a great guy in so many ways. I haven’t had many boyfriends in my life, and the others have all had their issues or else had difficulty dealing with my disability long term. Three years ago, I would have bet the farm I’d never end up living with a man.
But Tyler is wonderful, and he’s made it clear he’s in it for the long term. After all, you don’t move in with someone you’re not serious about. A lot of his friends have gotten engaged recently, and he’s been hinting at it a bit. Tyler could be the one. In fact, it’s very likely he is. This could be it. He could be it.
Tyler watches me take a bite of the food, his brown eyes intent on my face. “So?”
His face lights up. “As good as the teppenyaki place?”
White lies never hurt anyone.
“By the way,” Tyler says as he digs into his own food. “I told Nina and Claude we want to get together on Saturday night. To celebrate their engagement.”
“Oh, great!” Nina and Claude are our couple friends. Claude works at Tyler’s start-up and they were friends first, then we got friendly as couples. Well, I can’t say Nina and I are BFFs or anything, but we all hang out together at least a couple of times a month. And their engagement has ramped up the relationship pressure on the two of us. “Weren’t they going to have an engagement party?”
Tyler chews on the shrimp loudly. “Yeah, it was last weekend. But it was at Claude’s apartment and he’s got all those stairs, you know?”
I wince. The thing is, I’m used to missing out on things because of stairs. Liam and I have spent hours upon hours griping about all the freaking stairs in the world. But stairs serving as an impenetrable barrier is a new thing to Tyler. I hate to think of him missing out on things because of me.
I’d really hate for him to start thinking about all he’s missing out on by having a girlfriend in a wheelchair.
“You could have gone without me,” I say as I push the tiny chunks of shrimp around my plate. Why did he cut them so small? Does he think I don’t know how to chew?
Tyler’s eyes widen. “Without you?”
“Sure. That would be okay.”
“Maddie.” He frowns. “I would never do that. If you can’t go, I’m not going. I wouldn’t even consider it. End of story.”
He is really, really sweet. I’m very lucky.
If I weren’t planning to end things with Erin, I’d be trying to convince her to move. Her building—her goddamn building—it’s the worst.
The building is technically wheelchair-accessible. It has to be—that’s the law. That said, you couldn’t ask for a more annoying entrance to the building for a guy who can’t get up a bunch of stairs on his own steam. It’s insulting. I feel like her building is giving me the finger every time I visit her.
There’s a ramp to get inside, so that’s fine. But once you’re inside, there are four more steps to get to the elevator. But instead of doing something reasonable like attempting to put in another ramp, they instead installed a mini lift. Like the kind in the wheelchair van I used to have or a city bus.
I can deal with it if it’s in my own van, but I hate it on buses and I hate it here. I have to wheel onto it, wait for the goddamn doorman to come over and he has to operate it for me. If he’s busy, it could take five minutes easy to get up those four stairs. It’s almost enough to motivate me to get on my feet again.
If there were a railing, I might attempt to bump myself up the stairs, even though it kills my shoulders. But there’s no railing, so getting up the stairs would involve some sort of defiance of the laws of gravity. But on the way out, I always bump myself down the stairs, even though without any railing to hold onto, it’s fucking scary. I fell once. But still, it’s worth it not to have to take the lift.
This is one of those times when I wonder about the other half. What’s it like to not have to deal with this shit? To be able to get into any building I want without having to stress about a few stairs. To not have to call ahead places to ask about accessibility or make special arrangements. Listen, I’m in a wheelchair, so… is there an elevator? Then the uncomfortable fumbling as they try to figure it out. It’s exhausting.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to not have to worry about that. It must be nice.
Anyway, this is one of the last times I’ll be on this goddamn lift. I need to end it with Erin ASAP. I wanted to get Maddie’s advice. Or if not advice, I wanted to see her and know I’m doing the right thing. But I can’t wait. I know how to break up with girls. It’s not you—it’s me. Let’s stay friends. You get the idea.
When I get up to Erin’s apartment, she’s dressed to the nines in a clingy black thing. Her blond hair is in an elaborate twist which looks like you’d need a graduate degree to unfurl. I’m not gonna lie—Erin’s really hot. When we’re out together, people give us funny looks, trying to figure it out. After we have dinner here, we’re going to a party tonight at the house of a friend of hers, and I guarantee at least one guy will try to hit on Erin right in front of me. I’d bet the price of a new desk for Father O’Brien.
“Liam.” She beams at me when she sees me at her door. “Come in.”
She won’t kiss me in the hallway. Because… I don’t know. She wants people to think she’s a kiss virgin too?
Once I’m inside, she kisses me though. Big time. She’s all over me, actually, which… well, usually it’s great. But not today. Today I’m breaking up with her, so I feel like a makeout session isn’t a great idea. But as sits in my lap and kisses my neck and runs her hand over my chest, it’s hard to push her away. Most of our evenings together conclude with us in bed, which says a lot, considering she was a virgin before me.
As I said before, my success rate with women is really good, which surprises people because it’s obvious from looking at me that I’m not able to do any acrobatics in the bedroom. On top of that, the sensation in my lower body is impaired thanks to my damaged spinal cord. I have maybe half of normal below my waist (and my lower legs not at all). It means actual intercourse involves medication and a lot of coaxing and sometimes prayer. (Good thing I got practice during all those years of Sunday School.)
But actually, that works in my favor. I’m not as focused as most guys on sticking my dick in a girl, which means I can do other things she might like better. I don’t want to brag but I am really, really good at oral sex. I might even throw another “really” in there. I’m really, really, really good at it. I’m the fucking Coby Bryant of cunilingus. Part of it is that I love doing it. I love teasing the girl, making her squirm and eventually scream—there’s nothing sexier. I go really, really slow, so even someone like Erin, who had her reservations about doing anything sexual, let me do everything I wanted to do. And then by the time we moved on to actual intercourse, we were already so hot and heavy, it seemed like no big deal.
“You look handsome tonight,” Erin breathes in my ear.
I pull away from her, resisting the urge to push her out of my lap. “For a change?”
She laughs. “A rare treat.”
She seems to get the message that I’m not in the mood to fool around so she climbs off my lap. I run my wheels over her welcome mat a couple of times, trying to get the crud off my wheels—yet another thing I hate about coming to Erin’s place is her wall-to-wall carpeting. She always walks around barefoot, but that won’t help me out much. I can’t get out of my chair and crawl.
“Smells good,” I say. Erin cooked for me. I get a pang—I can’t dump her when she’s gone through the trouble of making me a home-cooked meal, can I? “What did you make?”
Lasagna is a serious meal. I could break up with her after, say, spaghetti, but not lasagna. I bet it’s delicious too. Erin’s a great cook. She’s the whole package.
I must be out of my mind.
She lets out a yawn as she heads into the kitchen to check on the lasagna. I watch her ass fill out her skintight jeans as she bends down to peer into the oven. “Maybe ten more minutes.”
“Awesome. How was your day?”
She straightens up and pats her elaborate blond knot. “Rewarding.”
“I went to the homeless shelter and spent the whole afternoon serving lunch and sorting canned goods.” She lets out a tired sigh. “It was so rewarding.”
“You should come with me next time, Liam.”
Erin is so good. She works hard all week as a teacher, then she spends her free time volunteering. I work hard all week, and I spend my free time watching TV or surfing the web. If there’s a heaven, I’m sure she’ll go there. I don’t know want to think about where I’ll go. But I’d like to think I’ll be okay.
“Tire tracks,” she points out, her finger indicating two light gray lines I made on her carpet.
Shit. I’m breaking up with her and I screwed up her carpet. I really am going to hell. But to be fair, her carpet is insanely white.
“Sorry,” I mumble.
I go back to the welcome mat and work on getting the dirt from my wheels although it’s a lost cause. Erin gets out her vacuum to clean up my tracks before they set in. Every time. I hate coming here.
“So how was confession yesterday?” she asks. “Wasn’t Father O’Brien the best?”
Yep, he’s the best. And P.S., he convinced me to dump you.
She smiles as she stuffs the vacuum back in her closet. “Wasn’t it cleansing?”
“Cleansing?” I repeat. I don’t know what to say to that. “Sure. I guess.”
Her light brown eyebrows furrow. “I do worry about your soul sometimes, Liam.”
She’s worried about my soul? “What does that mean?”
She gestures down at my legs. “Isn’t it obvious?”
I look down at my legs, trying to figure out what the hell she’s talking about. I’m wearing my good pants—expensive and light gray in color, although baggy on my skinnyass legs. White dress shirt that’s not unacceptably wrinkled. I’m on my best behavior.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I finally say.
“Every sin has a consequence.” She blinks at me as she wipes her hands on her jeans. “If you don’t cleanse your soul, your body will suffer for it.”
I frown at her, trying to work this one out. I can’t. “You know I have spina bifida, right? I didn’t do this to myself from sinning. I didn’t get drunk and smash my car into a tree. I was born this way.”
“Well,” she says, “it wasn’t your sin.”
I narrow my eyes. “So whose sin was it?”
She’s quiet, not answering.
“Hang on.” I stare at her. “Are you saying my mother did this to me? That my mother committed some awful sin and because of that, she got punished?”
She shrugs. “It’s the obvious conclusion. Don’t you think so?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Holy shit, what’s wrong with this girl? I didn’t see this one coming at all. I’ve been dating her six months—how did she manage to hide this crazy? Now I don’t feel so bad about what I’ve got to do—you don’t diss a guy’s mom. “You’ve met my mother. You think she’s a sinner?”
“I think everyone gets what they deserve.”
“So she’s a terrible person and she got what she deserved—me.” I shake my head. “Is that about right?”
“Don’t get angry, Liam.” She rests a hand on my shoulder, but I shrug her off. “Maybe she simply… didn’t have enough faith.”
“No, fuck that.” My hands ball into fists. Not that I’m going to punch a wall or anything, but it’s not out of the question. “My mom prays every night. She dragged me to church every Sunday—and believe me, that wasn’t easy. You can’t question her faith.”
“I’m just trying to help you, Liam.” Her voice becomes gentle. “Don’t you want to be normal like everyone else?”
I grit my teeth. If Maddie were here now, she’d get it. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when people use the word “normal” to refer to everyone else. Except everyone does it. They don’t have any idea how insulting it is. I’ve heard it a million times.
You’d be surprised how much it used to happen at church when I was a kid. Some old friend of my mom’s would come up to us who hadn’t seen us in a long time, and the patronizing questions would start:
“And this must be your son, Liam,” the friend would say. “He’s getting so big!”
My mother would get that weary look on her face, because she knew what was coming too. “Yes…”
“What a handsome young man,” they would always comment. And then shake their head, like, gee, what a shame. “Where do you send him during the day?”
“He goes to the local elementary school,” my mother would say.
The look of surprise was always identical. “He goes to a normal school? How does that work?”
What happened next depended on how I was feeling that day. Sometimes I let my mother handle it diplomatically, explaining I had no trouble following the curriculum at a “normal” school. If I wasn’t feeling so nice, I’d say loud enough for other people to turn and look, “I’m not retarded.”
But that meant I’d go straight to bed that night without dessert. Other people might have gone easy on me, but my mother never did. She couldn’t. I would have rolled all over her.
I still hear it all the time though. Normal this, normal that. I didn’t expect it from Erin.
“I’m sorry,” Erin says gently when she sees the look on my face. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant…”
“Yeah, what did you mean exactly? I’d love to hear.”
“I just…” She sighs. “I love you. I’m trying to help you.”
But I don’t love you. And now I finally know why.
“Look.” I grab my pushrims with both hands. “I don’t think this is working out, Erin. I think… I’m going to go.”
Her blue eyes widen. “You mean… you don’t want to go to the party?”
“No, I mean…” This is hard. Even though she accused my mother of being a sinner, it’s hard. Erin is nice—I don’t want to hurt her. “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
Her mouth falls open. She’s shocked. It’s not like Erin hasn’t been dumped before, because she has. But it’s always been because she wouldn’t put out. I’m the one guy she broke her rule for, and I’m still breaking up with her. I don’t feel good about it.
Sometimes I think I must be out of my mind.
“You’re breaking up with me?” she whispers.
I rub my eyes with the balls of my hands. “I’m sorry, Erin.”
Like I said, I’ve broken up with my fair share of women before. It’s never fun or easy, but usually it goes mostly as expected. There are tears and hurt, or else they take it fine and we agree to stay friends (but we obviously don’t). And that’s how it always goes down. Just like with most things, I get some amount of leeway because I’m disabled.
So I don’t entirely expect the way Erin’s face goes beet red and her eyes start to bulge out. And I definitely don’t expect her to pick up a ladle from the kitchen counter and throw it at my head. It barely misses.
“What the hell?” I yelp. “Are you out of your goddamn mind?”
“How could you be breaking up with me?” she screams. “I let you fuck me! I let you do everything! How could you break up with me?”
To be fair, she didn’t let me do everything. If I got my way, I would have loved to… well, this probably isn’t the time be arguing semantics. I fucked her, and that’s something no other guy got to do. She figured I’d be worshipping her at her feet.
“It’s not about you,” I say weakly. “It’s me.”
“You bet it’s you!” Now she picks up a pasta strainer and throws it at me. This time I’m expecting it and swerve out of the way. Good thing because the strainer is made from metal. That would have hurt. “You act like you’re nice, Liam Murphy. You smile at people like you’re so harmless, but it’s all a goddamn act.” Wow, she’s taking the name of God in vain. She must really be out of her mind with anger. “You’re a terrible person.”
“Get out!” she shrieks. “Get out of my apartment, you piece of shit!”
She picks up a bowl, preparing to hurl it at me. She doesn’t have to tell me again. I back up, tire prints and all, and then I’m gone.
To be continued...